Can This Man Keep the A’s in Oakland?
“Dave! Dave! Dave!” the women shouted, eyes wide with surprise. They were high in the stands at the Coliseum when they came upon Dave Kaval, president of the Oakland Athletics, who was mountaineering up, step by step, from field level to the nosebleeds.
“We’re behind you, Dave, 100 percent!” someone yelled from the seats.
Below, the A’s were battling the Los Angeles Angels, but Kaval was missing most of it. Instead, wearing a gray suit and a green tie, he was greeting fans, one by one, in his tired, dog-eared stadium. He was like a political candidate on a hot streak. Some fans shrieked when they saw him. Others stood, dumbstruck. He gushed over babies, posed for photos and heard stories about the Athletics’ glorious past.
He shared tales of his own, about how he had grown up in Cleveland, a die-hard devotee of the 1980s Browns, and how devastated he felt when the Browns decamped for Baltimore in the ’90s. He wasn’t going to let that happen in Oakland.
“Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart,” said a woman wearing an A’s cap. Tears welled in her eyes. “We hope you can save our team.”
‘You Can’t Have Doubt’
Kaval thinks it’s crucial to mothball the Coliseum. Built in the mid-1960s in an impoverished neighborhood of East Oakland, the amphitheater was considered a jewel and served as the home of the A’s and the Oakland Raiders.
But the Coliseum is now a relic. Its stern, utilitarian architecture is long out of date. In recent years, it has become as well-known for raw sewage leaks as it has for its legendary games. The Raiders will soon be playing in Las Vegas, and the Warriors will abandon their arena next door when the N.B.A. playoffs are over, heading off to glitzy new digs in San Francisco.
For much of two decades, the A’s have flirted with uprooting to another city. But then, in 2016, as Kaval took the helm, the interest in fleeing Oakland ended. “The team has had very serious near-death experiences in the past, what with all the talk about going somewhere else,” Kaval said. “But we don’t see Oakland as a liability. We see it as a strength.”
First, he tried to move the A’s to a site near Oakland’s Chinatown. The attempt was scuttled last year after loud opposition from the neighborhood. Now, he wants to construct the stadium on an asphalt-topped stretch of the Port of Oakland known as Howard Terminal, and start playing there in 2023.
Beyond a new stadium, he intends to build housing for businesses and thousands of people both on the property surrounding the old Coliseum and at Howard Terminal, making the A’s the biggest land developer in major league history.
His intense and omnipresent advocacy of the A’s, of staying in town and building at Howard Terminal, has made Kaval the face of the franchise — not the slugger Khris Davis, who has hit more than 200 home runs in his major league career, or even Billy Beane, the A’s vice president of operations and the star of “Moneyball,” the book and the movie.
On television, social media, in newspapers; at hundreds of hearings, community meetings, and private talks with politicians; even in the bleachers during baseball games, there is Kaval, lionizing Howard Terminal. Such campaigning is exceedingly rare for a team president in the staid major leagues. He is “unique in the game,” Beane said.
Kaval engages politicians who don’t trust his plans, agencies that must approve them, activists who say he is trying to dodge environmental regulations, trade groups and union members who expect his ballpark to cost waterfront jobs. He meets leaders in East Oakland, where he is leaving, and others in West Oakland, where he wants to build, who fear the impact on African-American and Latino neighborhoods. He even contends with ship captains, who say light from the new stadium might blind their pilots as they navigate the harbor.
Plenty of hurdles remain. A key, final review of the project’s environmental impact won’t be done for months. Kaval must continue persuading the state legislature, land use commissions and the Port of Oakland to give the project the green light. And early next year, Oakland’s City Council is slated to take a final vote on the waterfront plan.
“You can’t have doubt,” he said. “Changing the status quo is not easy. People resist it, and you need to have perseverance and resiliency.”
The Highest Stakes Yet
At 43, Kaval is one of the youngest team presidents in Major League Baseball. He is arguably the most dynamic. For the A’s, Beane continues to oversee the on-field product: trades, contracts, draft picks and the like. Kaval handles everything else.
Most club presidents come up through the ranks, Beane said, often from the finance department or baseball operations on a big league team. “But Dave didn’t come up that way,” he added. “He comes up from an entrepreneurial background. It gives him a different way of seeing things.”
Kaval’s baseball experience comes straight out of Stanford’s business school, where he and a classmate drew up an against-all-odds idea to start their own minor league, which they got off the ground not long after graduation: the Golden Baseball League.
To fill the stands, he provided the last-gasp professional stops for Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson, rented a crop duster to drop 5,000 $100 bills on fans of the Yuma Scorpions and hired a female knuckleballer to start for the Chico Outlaws.
The Golden Baseball League wasn’t affiliated with the majors, and it fizzled after six seasons. Kaval’s next stop was San Jose, where he ran Major League Soccer’s Earthquakes, guiding the construction of an 18,000-seat stadium for the team.
But baseball was always his passion, and he is now running the A’s with the creative moxie that he honed in his minor league. Last year, when the A’s celebrated their 50th season in Oakland, they hosted the White Sox — and every ticket was free. Each week, Kaval holds office hours for A’s fans, who ply him with ideas. Their suggestions have led to new lounges, new seats for families, new food trucks and a new spring training logo.
But these pale against what he wants to do with the old Coliseum property and the new stadium at Howard Terminal. The stakes are high. If his plan succeeds, the A’s will stay put for the long haul. “Rooted in Oakland” is a phrase Kaval repeats with great constancy. It is also on A’s billboards all over town.
But if the grand plan fails?
A Bustling and Fertile Ground
On a recent sunny afternoon, Kaval walked briskly through Jack London Square, a waterfront district filled with apartments, bars and restaurants near downtown Oakland.
He stopped. “The stadium will be right there!” He pointed just north, a few dozen yards away, to a 50-acre stretch of asphalt. “Beautiful!”
Howard Terminal doesn’t look beautiful right now. It’s a parking lot filled with semitrailer trucks and shipping containers. The land is lined at the water’s edge by towers for cranes that once loaded and unloaded vessels.
On one side is Jack London Square. On another is West Oakland, one of the city’s long-suffering, predominantly African-American neighborhoods. On another is one of the nation’s busiest anchorages. A next-door neighbor for Kaval’s proposed stadium is a recycling plant, fronted by a massive pile of metal scraps. The plant rattles and clanks. Last year it caught fire.
On a nearby street are train tracks, bustling with Amtrak, commuter and freight cars — potential hazards for auto traffic and pedestrians.
Around his new ballpark, Kaval would develop 3,000 townhouses and attendant businesses, including units for low-income tenants. At the old Coliseum and Oracle Arena site, he is poised to bid up to $165 million of the A’s money to buy the entire parcel, and then add 3,000 townhomes, low-income units and business space.
Kaval won’t say how much the entire plan would cost, or what it might cost the city to improve nearby streets and infrastructure. But the team has vowed to build with private financing; Oakland, strapped for cash, refuses to fund a new complex for any team.
The Howard Terminal stadium, he said, would hold about 35,000 fans. It would have a landscaped rooftop park, open even when there were no games.
The plan would “activate” the often-sleepy waterfront, he said, by drawing people to games and attracting new residents. He has an unyielding optimism and a salesman’s zeal. But not everybody is buying.
Facing the Skeptics
“This is a land grab,” said L.J. Jennings, pastor of the Kingdom Builders Christian Fellowship in East Oakland, where the Coliseum has reigned for decades. Voicing a commonly heard concern, he worries that Kaval and the A’s will not keep their promise to redo the Coliseum grounds. And if they do, he fears they won’t do it right.
Pastor Jennings said he thought Kaval’s development might drive up rents and push residents out of one of Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods. “The end result,” he said, “will be to force black and brown people out of the city.”
There is concern in West Oakland, as well. Both East and West Oakland are emerging from years of neglect. They’ve weathered drug wars, a crack epidemic and the effects of deadly pollution. In both neighborhoods, Kaval’s grand plan has stoked not only great optimism, but also distrust.
Mike Jacob, vice president for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a trade group that represents maritime business at the port, said Howard Terminal was “a terrible location to build a ballpark.” Jacob said the new stadium would “hamper the port and cost thousands of working people their jobs.”
To which Kaval responds that Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf — a critic of spending taxpayer dollars on the construction of stadiums for professional sports — is working alongside him because she knows his plan will be good for the entire city. Naysayers, he says, will soon agree.
The A’s, he says, can clean up the toxic waste and be environmental stewards. They can find a solution to the scrap metal and noise at the recycler, maybe by walling it off.
As for the ship captains, the drivers and pedestrians needing to cross rail tracks to get to the game, Kaval says the stadium will be designed to ensure their safety.
None of this will be easy.
And behind all of this exists the primary question: What if he can’t pull it off?
What will the A’s do then?
That is the question all of Oakland is asking. Its football and basketball teams are just about gone.
This is a city in fear of the last shoe falling.
“We’re focused on making Howard Terminal happen,” Kaval said. “That’s all. There is no Plan B.”
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